By Lonni Lees
Some of it was mine.
I pushed myself up from the body that lay beneath me and the blood felt thick and sticky, like last week’s chocolate pudding. The coagulation meant we’d been there awhile. I couldn’t remember how I got there, much less who I was. Everything was fuzzy. I looked down at the naked man and smiled.
This sap had really been short-changed when Santa-God was passing out packages.
I wondered what made him seem sadder, the knife in his chest or his inadequate physique?
At this point it hardly mattered. Hell, he was better off dead anyway. I sure wouldn’t want to walk around like a bloated monkfish with a guppy-sized dick. By the looks of things I must’ve killed him. I’m sure I did because I just had to. People don’t just stab people for no reason, do they?
And it was unlikely he stabbed himself, not that I would have blamed him.
My legs shook as I rose to my feet and looked around. Things were thrown everywhere, like somebody’d put up one hell of a struggle. My clothes lay in a heap, spattered with blood. I was wearing one shoe. A cheap rubber flip-flop. How sad was that? For God’s sake, didn’t I have better taste in footwear?
The decor was a 1970s nightmare graced with an old TV bolted to the wall. Next to it hung a cardboard print trying to pass for art. The faint aroma of orange peel hung in the air, like somebody forgot to take out yesterday’s garbage.
It was a motel room, and not a classy one either.
It was hard to decide which was worse; the decor or the dead man.
The blood was caked to my skin like dried plaster. I headed to the bathroom and turned on the shower.
I had to get out of there.
I stepped into the mildew-tiled enclosure, wondering if I’d end up dirtier than I already was. Sometimes you’ve got to make due, so I reached for a wash cloth, a bar of soap the size of a quarter, and got to work.
As warm water cascaded down my bruised body I saw knife cuts below my left breast and across my stomach. Not deep, but deep enough to make me hurt. A lot. They stung like the hot end of a cigarette. Nothing but jig-sawed images danced across my brain as I tried to piece things together.
What the hell had I gotten myself into?
I dried off and went back to the other room. There was no way I was putting on my bloody clothes. The rack that hung between the bedroom and bath was a snarl of wire hangers. I pulled down a gaudy Hawaiian shirt with flamingos and palm trees on it and slipped it on. Baggy and tasteless, but it would have to do. I slipped on a pair of Bermuda shorts that lay on the floor. They were big for a guy with no dick, but his belt and my full hips were enough to keep them from landing around my ankles.
What a fucking fashion plate, I thought, glancing in the mirror.
I looked like a bull dyke at a pool party.
The ladies’ handbag that sat on the dresser must’ve been mine. I spilled out the contents and reached for the wallet, and shuffled through it. The driver’s license bore my photo. Black hair, brown eyes, and damn pretty if I do say so—and the name Rosemary Russo. Rosemary. Rose. Rosie! Things were focusing. But slowly, in little flashes.
I bent over to pick up my other flip-flop and spotted the man’s wallet and car keys on the night stand. I stepped over the bloating corpse and grabbed the wallet. There must’ve been a thousand dollars in it, maybe two. No time to count. It traveled from his wallet to mine faster than a Japanese bullet train flying through a tunnel.
I picked up his keys and headed out the door, slapped in the face by the early-afternoon sun. As my eyes adjusted to the light I kept hitting the unlock button on the key chain. Finally, a car beeped. I ran over and opened the door. I slid in onto soft leather that made me feel like my ass was being kissed by angels. It would be easy to get used to. Some kind of foreign job and if it hadn’t been an automatic I’d never have gotten out of there.
I found the lever and adjusted the seat until my foot reached the gas pedal. I turned the key. Opera music blasted from the speakers, giving me a jolt. I turned it off and listened to the engine purr while I collected my thoughts. Pulling out of the lot I saw the battered sign: MOTEL JERSEY.
And it clicked.
I remembered how Rosie Russo from the Bronx ended up in a motel room in Jersey with a dead guy on the floor.
The story played over in my head as I drove back across the river.
Last week best friend Gina and I went on a shopping spree while our husbands were at the factory. We’d sneak out like that. When their shift was done they were welcomed home to the aroma of dinner and wives who looked like they’d been cleaning all day. We’d been doing that for a while now and they’d yet to catch on. Probably never would. Hell, it wasn’t like we were cheating on them or anything. Just a little girl time, you know?
We drooled over fashion magazines so we knew all the latest. Sometimes when we were shopping, an item would find its way into my purse or into my pocket. It gave me the same high I used to get when we’d steal candy from the corner store. I guess we had a touch of larceny in our blood even then—it sure was fun. Now we were all grown up. We’d hide a bit from the grocery money every week, then buy stuff and stash it in the back of our closets.
Our husbands were none the wiser.
My Franco and her Patrick are good guys. We loved ’em, don’t misunderstand me. But they couldn’t tell a $52 bottle of Tutankhamen Brew from Bud Light if they were being threatened with castration, much less a genuine Gucci from a knock-off.
That worked to our advantage.
We wanted nice things, Gina and me. Like I said, we both had decent husbands who put food on the table, paid the bills and didn’t cheat. That’s worth a lot, but we wanted just that little bit more.
That’s human nature, right?
“Let’s go in here,” Gina would say.
Looking in store windows was fun. Going inside was better. Especially high-end shoe stores. We tried on shoes. Lots of shoes. Expensive shoes. Jimmy Choo and Marc Jacobs and Chanel. The salesman waited on us with anticipation until we’d tell him we didn’t see anything we liked.
Then we’d walk out the door, noses in the air.
But one recent day was different.
I saw the cutest pink ankle socks all studded with rhinestones. What sane person would pay $40 for socks I asked myself, slipping them into my purse. I walked over to where a salesman was sliding a pair of Christian Louboutin heels onto Gina’s feet. They were gorgeous. But instead of handing them back she marched them to the register.
“Gina, what are you doing?” I whispered.
She pulled out her wallet and placed $800 on the counter. $800!
“Gina, where’d you get that kinda money?” I asked, speaking low so the cashier couldn’t hear.
Ignoring me, she counted out the bills.
“Wait ’til we get outside,” she whispered, shoving the change into her bag. “Besides, that’s a killer price for Louboutin’s.”
We exited the store, giggling like school girls as we doubled our pace and headed up the sidewalk.
“How the hell’d you come up with all that money, feeding Patrick Top Ramen?”
“It’s time we had a talk,” she said, swinging the bag that held her new shoes.
And she told me about Jimmy the Driver.
“He picks me up at the house and takes me to Atlantic City. It’s all set up. I turn a quick trick, Jimmy picks me up again, takes me home and I’m $500 to $1,000 richer. No harm done.”
“There’s a word for that.”
“It’s not being a whore, if that’s what you mean. It’s only every once in a while and the men are safe. Jimmy sees to that. And nobody’s none the wiser. You’re my friend and you didn’t have a clue. That oughta tell you something.”
“Mama warned me not to marry a mick, said he’d never amount to anything. Stick with Italian, she said. Irish is nothing but heartache. He’s a good Catholic, I told her. But it’s not our kind of Catholic, they’re not like us, she said. You know I love the guy, Rosie. But he won’t ever make us rich.”
“And I love Franco, so I could never...”
She stopped me, reasoning away my protests.
“I told you because I trust you. Whether you want to is your business. It’s our secret either way, Rosie. I’ve got the best of both worlds, don’t you see? I’ve got my man and I’ve got my Christian Louboutin shoes. I’m happy. I’d never have them on his salary. You’ll never have squat on Franco’s. Our little game is nickel and dime stuff. This way is faster.”
“But a price has to be paid.”
I looked her in the eyes, and then crossed myself.
“Religious indignation? My God Rosie, you’re starting to sound like the nuns at St. Francis Xavier. C’mon, you’re already stealing food money. Turning a trick isn’t stealing, so who’s the worst sinner here, huh?”
I flashed back to the two of us in our starched white blouses and ugly plaid skirts heading to parochial school. We’d been friends a long time. We smoked our first cigarettes together, sneaked our first drink from her father’s bottle of home-made grappa. I’d never cared about anybody as much as I cared for Gina. We were like sisters.
“Tell me something Rosie, and be honest with me. Granted, it’s fun to buy an outfit maybe a couple hundred dollars higher than we can afford, but don’t you ever want more?”
“I always want more, but not like that.”
“It’s easy money,” she said, patting the side of her purse. “Remember when we were kids and we’d dress up for Halloween? I was always the gypsy princess, all decked out in my mother’s costume jewelry with a ring on every finger. And you were the pirate queen with the big hoop earrings and the jeweled eye-patch.”
“Pretending my bag of candy was my loot of silver and gold doubloons.”
“It felt good, didn’t it? We always knew we deserved more, admit it.”
I looked back at the store window, at the display of shoes and sighed.
“There is a pair of to-die-for Manolo Blahnik’s I’ve had my eye on...”
And that’s how it all started.
A week later Jimmy the Driver picked me up and now I was headed to Gina’s leaving a dead guy behind in a motel room in Jersey. No harm done, my ass. I parked a block from Gina’s and walked to her door, knocking hard ’til I thought my knuckles would bleed.
“Where the hell have you been?” she asked.
I pushed past her.
“I need clothes,” I said, indicating the baggy Hawaiian shirt. “I can’t go home like this.”
“Jimmy the Driver’s been calling. Says you weren’t there for the pick up, says nobody’d open the motel door.”
“It’s a long story.”
“Then he calls again, says the guy’s dead in the room, has to call somebody to clean up the mess.”
“Son-of-a-bitch tried to kill me. He pinned me down and took out a knife.”
I opened my shirt and showed my cuts.
Gina didn’t know whether to laugh or cry so she just groaned.
“How was I to know Vinnie the Cutter’d be your first customer? I’d never do that to you. I’d at least have warned you.”
“You knew that asshole? He was going to kill me.”
I pointed at the cuts again.
“How am I going to explain this to Franco? Damn it, he tried to kill me!”
“Vinnie? Kill you? He’s harmless.”
“You call this harmless?”
“Okay, so he likes to cut a little. That’s how he gets off, but he’d never really hurt you. Look at you, they’re nothing more than cat scratches and you didn’t have to spread your legs. I never had to anyway, so I’d call that easy money.”
She left the room and when she came back she threw a sun dress at me. I stepped out of the dead man’s clothes, tossing them onto a chair.
“You’re in more trouble than you can imagine, Rosie! Just put this on and get the hell out of here.”
“The cops would never know who did it,” I said, slipping the dress over my head.
“It’s not the cops you have to worry about. They wouldn’t know anything happened. That’s been taken care of.”
“Then I don’t get it.”
“How stupid are you, Rosie? He was connected. Vinnie was connected!”
“You mean mob?”
“Bingo. They’ll want your head, so get the hell out of here. I love you Rosie, but I don’t want to end up knee-deep in your shit!”
There was panic in her eyes. I hugged her and told her I loved her. I headed through the kitchen to the back door. As I opened it I heard the doorbell ring and somebody was pounding hard enough to send the door flying into the next borough.
I froze, door knob in hand.
There was a loud crash as the front door was kicked off its hinges, landing across the coffee table, breaking its glass top. Not as far as Queens, but far enough to scare the shit out of me.
“You’ve got to tell where she is.” It was Jimmy the Driver.
“I don’t know,” said Gina.
“Make the bitch talk or I will!”
It was the voice of another man. A big man who meant business.
“He ain’t kidding around,” Jimmy pleaded. “It’s okay Tony, just hold on a sec. Gina, you gotta tell me.”
“I haven’t seen her. I’d tell you if I had.”
“So why’s Vinnie’s shirt on the chair over there?”
“That’s my husband’s.”
“How ya know that’s Vinnie’s?” asked the goon.
“I’d know those fucking flamingos anywhere, Tony. Gimme a break.”
“Time to talk, bitch,” said Tony.
“I don’t know anything.”
“Gina, you gotta tell me before we both get hurt,” said Jimmy.
“Sorry, I don’t know.”
I wanted to scream, tell her to stop being stubborn, that it wasn’t worth it. I wanted to run back into the room. But I just stood there holding that damn door knob, doing nothing.
I heard a click.
Then a single gunshot followed by a chilling silence.
As I slipped out the door I heard the big man’s booming voice: “Now grab Vinnie’s rags and tell me where I can find the bitch. Unless you wanna be next.”
The alley was the fastest way home. All the while I was running I was thinking, she’s dead, she’s dead, and it’s all my fault. By the time I reached the back door I told myself it wasn’t my fault at all. None of this mess would’ve happened if Gina hadn’t told me about Jimmy the Driver and easy money and everything.
Sure, I loved her, sure, but in a roundabout way she brought it on herself.
Now she was dead and I was next.
How’s that for easy money?
My heart pounded ten-forty and I gasped for breath as I tried to figure out what to do. Franco would be home in an hour. He’d know what to do, but by then he’d be greeted by a dead wife lying on the floor in her second pool of blood for the day. Kind of a crappy ending to a good marriage, don’t you think?
A car pulled up in front of the house.
I opened the door.
There really wasn’t much else I could do.
They had me good.
Jimmy the Driver walked in with Tony the Gorilla close behind. Tony grabbed me by the arm, slamming me against the wall. He shoved his sweaty face against mine and I recoiled from hot garlic breath as he blew in my ear.
He held the gun to my head, so I babbled on and on, trying to explain how it wasn’t my fault and saying anything I could think of to buy myself a few more seconds. Just a few before he pulled the trigger and it was all over.
“I got an idea,” said Jimmy. “Something that’s gonna hurt her more than a bullet in the head. Something that’ll make the boss some money too.”
“Shut the fuck up, Jimmy. Can’t you see I got a job to do here?”
“Just listen,” he said. “I know a way the boss can taste revenge a lot longer than just knowing the bitch is dead. It’s not like Vinnie was an important player or something.”
“But he was still one of us. You don’t mess with one of us.”
“You come up with a good idea, the boss would look favorably on you. It might even hoist you up a rung.”
They left me standing frozen against the wall as they huddled together, talking in whispers. One more minute to breathe. Just one more minute.
I stood there dumb, thinking about the wad of money in my purse. They mustn’t have noticed that his wallet was empty when they cleaned up the mess in that motel room. A lot of good it would do me now anyway. It would’ve been nice to live long enough to spend some of it.
Easy money my ass.
Jimmy punched in the numbers and handed the gorilla his cell.
There was back and forth I couldn’t make out, then Tony spoke: “Yeah, she’s a real looker, boss. Kinda like one of them Kardashian broads, ya’ know?”
Tony handed the phone back to Jimmy.
I glanced at the mantel clock. Twenty minutes and Franco would walk through the door.
Twenty minutes too late.
“Okay, Boss,” Jimmy said, disconnected the phone and folded it back into his pocket. He gave me an apologetic shrug. What the hell was I in for, rape and slow torture before they killed me? I crossed myself, praying they’d make it quick and be done with it.
“Looks like today’s your day,” said Tony, walking back to me.
He ran a stubby finger along my jaw.
“Lucky for you you’re a looker or you’d be finished.”
He started to suck on my earlobe and run his tongue along my neck. I’d rather be dead in the trunk of his car than be pawed by this goon. He was even more disgusting than Vinnie the Cutter.
“Ain’t no time for this,” said Jimmy. “We gotta get outta here.”
Tony pulled back.
“You’re one lucky dame. The boss is gonna make you pay big. You’ll be turning tricks a very long time to make things right. Got the picture?”
“I’ve got it.”
“We’ll be in contact. And you’d better not try any funny stuff or you’re dead.”
“Guess you oughta count your blessings,” said Jimmy.
Well, it was going to take some tricky business to keep things from Franco, but what choice did I have? Hopefully they’d let me keep some of the dough. A girl needs to look her best, even in a Jersey motel room.
They walked out the door and I ran for the kitchen. My hands were shaking like I had the palsy as I pulled hamburger out of the fridge, threw it into a pan on the stove and reached under the sink. I pulled out a bottle of Pine-sol and dabbed it on my neck, so I’d smell like I’d been cleaning. That would also explain the sweat dripping from my scalp like I’d just come out of the rain.
A housewife’s day ain’t easy.
Franco was ten minutes late when he walked through the door, following the aroma of dinner wafting from the kitchen. I stood at the sink looking out the window. He spun me around and something in his expression didn’t look right.
“You’re late, sweetie,” I said, leaning in to kiss him on the cheek.
“This isn’t easy, so I’ll start at the beginning. Sit down.”
I turned off the burner, pulled out a kitchen chair and sat down. I waited until he sat down across from me before I spoke. I prayed real hard that he hadn’t caught wind of what Gina and I’d been up to.
“What is it, Franco? What’s wrong?”
“When I tried to turn onto the street it was blocked. Down at Gina’s end. Squad cars, ambulances, you name it, were all over the place. Red lights flashing, neighbors crowded around. Something bad had happened. Anyway, I turned down the next block and circled back from the other end.”
I squirmed in my seat, imagining what poor Patrick must’ve found when he got home.
“I don’t like where this is going. You’re scaring me.”
“I got out of the car and walked up there. Talked to the neighbors. It’s bad. Rosie, it was Gina’s house. I heard that somebody came out in a body bag.”
“Oh, my God, not Rosie! I just talked to her on the phone a couple hours ago. It can’t be Rosie, it just can’t be. Or Patrick. Who’d want to hurt Patrick?”
“I don’t know. Patrick’s car was out front, so I pushed through the crowd but they already had the yellow tape up and wouldn’t let me through.”
“Maybe one of them shot an intruder. That’s got to be it.”
“I don’t know Rosie, I just don’t know.”
I cried real hard and Franco comforted me and neither one of us could taste our dinner.
A few hours later the cops came to the door to ask questions. At first I was scared, then I realized they were talking to everybody on the street. No, I didn’t see or hear a thing. I’d been cleaning all afternoon. They verified that Gina had been killed, a single shot to the back of the head. Patrick was the first suspect, spouses always are, but he was at the factory all day so that left him off the hook. As the days passed they weren’t able to make a mob connection or anything else.
They’re still baffled.
They’re no closer to solving it today.
The day of Gina’s funeral: I stand grave side, next to my husband and poor Patrick, I look at the coffin and it still doesn’t seem real. Gina, my best friend in the world. Ever since we were kids we did everything together. I’d never have dreamed we’d both end up in a pool of blood on the same day.
At least I’m still alive.
And she’d have liked the turnout. The whole neighborhood’s there. And a few cops in the background, standing under the shade of the trees, trying to look inconspicuous as they scan the crowd.
They’ll never figure it out any more than Franco or Patrick would.
I run my black-gloved hand along my black dress. Not an expensive one, but simple and tasteful, like a classic Coco Chanel. My eyes drift from the coffin and flowers to look down at my new pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes, in a shade of crimson darker than blood.
Gina would have been proud.
Lonni Lees is a multi-award winning writer in both fiction and non-fiction. Her stories appear in Hardboiled magazine and on Yellow Mama, A Shot of Ink, Shotgun Honey, Black Petals, Einstein’s Pocket Watch and in the anthologies DEADLY DAMES, MORE WHODUNITS and BATTLING BOXING STORIES. Her short story collection, CRAWLSPACE, and her first novel, DERANGED (which won the PSWA 2012 award for best published novel) are available from Amazon.com as is her second novel, THE MOSAIC MURDER. THE CORPSE IN CACTUS is her third novel and the second in the Maggie Reardon Mystery series. Lonni was twice selected as Writer in Residence at Hedgebrook, a writer’s retreat on Whidbey Island. After living in four states and visiting many countries, she’s settled in Tucson. An award-winning artist, she fills her spare time showing her art in a local gallery, illustrating stories for on-line magazines and dreaming up new stories.